Up, Up With People...
Written by
Ann Lineberger
October 2018
Written by
Ann Lineberger
October 2018

My mother joined an alternative Catholic Church in the ‘70s. It was a newly formed, experimental community with a groovy “Up With People” vibe.  Organized by a group of educated and well-intentioned people who were looking for a less fear-based, more liberal approach to religion, it was the ideal community for her. 

Mass was held in the cafeteria of a local Catholic school, and we sat on folded metal chairs in front of an altar that was rolled in each Sunday. A priest, who had to be given permission by the Archdiocese to work with the untraditional community, led the masses but the adult Emmaus members were in charge. They planned all of the ceremonies. 

We were allowed to wear jeans and t-shirts to mass for the first time; our Sunday Best tucked away and reserved for special events. The Emmaus sermons discussed current events such as civil and women’s rights with an overall message of equality and fairness. They were more interesting to me than the ones given at our previous Catholic Church, St. Leo’s, and at the ultra-conservative church our grandparents attended. 

There was more spirited singing at Emmaus than at St. Leo’s.  Depending on the song, hand holding, vigorous clapping, and raising arms accompanied it. The music group, which was positioned to the right or the left of the alter depending on the day, was a ragtag ensemble that reminded me of the gang from Scooby-Doo. Dressed informally in polyester or denim bell-bottoms with polyester button downs or cotton peasant dresses with bell sleeves, they strummed, banged, blew and belted out songs. There were a few standout talents in the group, including an opera singer. Our mother played the tambourine and sang backup on occasion. 

Bible stories were reinterpreted and incorporated as mini performances into some of the masses. Largely acted out by the parents, the plays were meant to be entertaining and instructional but the kids in the community were convinced that they were designed to satisfy the theatric aspirations of the adult members. To this day, I can’t think of Good Friday without a smile. Every year, one of the fathers would dress up as Jesus in a scrap of white cloth and during a reenactment that involved other members walking along beside him, he dragged a massive wooden cross made out of fencing posts through the aisles. A different dad performed the routine each year giving the lugging and three “falls” his own spin. During these ceremonies, small eruptions of laughter broke out in the cafeteria; the kids of the community simply couldn’t hold it in.  

There was a “Personal Share” portion of the mass that I have since likened to the reveals of support groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous. The shares weren’t exactly confessional, more of an opportunity to vent, brag, and, occasionally, rant, but they possessed the same eye-opening observations that spying on my mother and grandparents’ dinner parties allowed. What was shared was by turns funny or frightening. 

The Emmaus “Kiss of Peace” wasn’t the quick turn to your neighbor and extend a hand or a wave across an aisle with the occasional peck on the cheek that I had experienced at St. Leo’s. It lasted at least fifteen minutes, longer on holidays when all the members were in attendance, and involved kissing and hugging every single person in the cafeteria. You know how teenagers enthusiastically greet each other? It often went something like that with the adults revving up, spreading their arms and smiles wide as they moved quickly towards their mark. What followed could feel suffocating, although it was always well intended, and I wrestled my way out of at least one long embrace every mass.  Announcements signaled the end of, what by that point, had become a tortuously long time for a kid to sit on a metal folding chair. 

Despite the entertaining and often-hilarious theatrics during the mass, all the kids wanted out by the end. The ceremonies regularly ran over ninety minutes.  The adults loved the hour of Coffee, Cake & Conversation that followed but the kids dashed from it like rats abandoning a sinking ship after grabbing donuts and Kool-Aid. We would meet up at designated spots and do one of three things: Scale the high school’s metal security gates and explore the rest of the school; play outside on its sports fields; or pile into one of the parents’ cars and listen en mass to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 while laughing about what we had just witnessed during mass.

My mother loved the church and still does. She’s now in her eighties and remains a very active member. From what I understand, the theatrical elements of it have been toned down and the music group is non-existent. My siblings and I stopped regularly going in high school and completely stopped when we went to college. All of the children of the original members did the same. It’s a wonderful, supportive community but it was our parents’ concept of an ideal alternative church, not ours. What I liked the most about my time with Emmaus was the kindness of the members. I spent countless hours playing in their homes with their kids, which in retrospect, I believe was offered to give my single mother some time to herself. They brought meals to our house when she was sick, and the entire community showed up on one moving day to help when my mother felt overwhelmed. It’s a community in the truest sense of the word.

Sunday Best, my second novel (following my first The Adjustments), was inspired by my time with Emmaus. One of Sunday Best’s plotlines has its roots in a church experience. Sunday Best is a comic mystery and involves an alternative Catholic Church called Unify founded in the ‘70s. Unlike Emmaus, a guru and a clairvoyant run Unify, and the storyline is potentially linked to two gruesome crimes committed in 1988 and 2017. Like Emmaus, Sunday Best's liturgies regularly include mini-performances, personal shares, and a kiss of peace, but the Unify members and their antics are fictional. 

My friend, the playwright, Jacque Lamarre and I will be discussing how to include friends, family and foes in fiction without upsetting them or getting sued at the Mark Twain House Writers Weekend on September 29-30th. Jacques has written over twenty plays and I’ve written two novels based, in part, on personal experiences. The Q&A is titled: “How to Avoid Lawsuits and Other Awkward Encounters.” Attorney David Polgar will join us to give his legal perspective. If you’re a writer or interested in becoming one, or just like to read and talk about it, please join us at the event.

Another attorney friend recently asked me about Sunday Best. When I told him its plotlines, his response was, “My God, where do you come up with these ideas?”


If you liked reading this blog, please let me know. I'm working on a series of personal essays and short stories (memoir and fiction) to be published next year and the ones I get positive feedback on will be included.


Additionally, if you liked this blog, please check out my website, novels and follow me on social media: 

Sunday Best  and The Adjustments

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  • Ann Lineberger

    It's easy. You should try it.

  • Nicole Cruz Writing

    Funny how real life tends to be more fictional that actual fiction. Writing from experience, how difficult was it? Where does the story starts and the real life events end?